Category Archives: Alzheimer’s Family Issues

From Memoryland to Grandbabyland: Part One

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If I have been absent lately, I have a good excuse: My daughter gave birth to her first child, a baby boy she named after Ralph. BabyRalph is as adorable as every newborn—in other words his parents and grandparents find him an absolutely perfect specimen of infancy and expect everyone we send pictures to agree with us, whatever they really think.

The plan has always been that

1), Ralph and I would drive down to New Orleans once my daughter went into labor and stay for a few days after the birth before I drove Ralph home

2), I would then return to help out on and off as long as needed, having arranged plenty of back up help for him.

Needless to say I was nervous about both parts of the plan.

For one thing, Ralph was less than enthusiastic about going to New Orleans at all. He said babies scared him, and I believed him. He was always more a dog person that a small child person. While he was present as the births of our two kids, he is a proud member of the late sixties generation of macho activist guys that spouted feminism but didn’t actually live it. I’m sure he must have changed some diapers; I just don’t remember when.

As my daughter’s due date approached (and then passed), we all became more and more anxious. Ralph too. His concerns shifted from himself to the upcoming birth and all that could go wrong. He stopped worrying about his own travel. He started calling to check in on my daughter and son-in-law (Flyfisherman) nightly. When are we going down again? Do you know when she’s go into labor? became his new mantra, which he repeated throughout the day several times an hour. When the call finally came that labor had begun, he willingly got in the car, and he barely complained on the six-hour drive.

Once in New Orleans, things got a little trickier. Ralph does not like changing his routine and likes excitement even less. Fortunately the small AirBnB we rented had a little patio where he could smoke. Since labor was going slow and we were asked to stay away until BabyRalph’s actual arrival, Ralph stayed on that patio a lot while I picked up the other grandmother at the airport and BabyRalph’s twelve-year-old half-sister K from school. Fortunately Ralph also napped since we were not summoned to the hospital to meet BabyRalph until late that night.

On that first visit and again the next day, while Baby Ralph’s two grandmothers and an ecstatic K vied for turns to hold him in the little rocking chair the hospital provided, Ralph held back. He would not hold the baby and would only look at him from the small sofa across the room, not up close. The next day was the same until I sat on the sofa with the baby so someone could take a picture of the three of us together. Ralph looked at the baby. Ralph squinched closer. Ralph decided maybe, just maybe he’d try holding the baby.

Ralph took his namesake in his arms. Ralph began talking to BabyRalph. Ralph began singing Dylan songs to BabyRalph.  My daughter,  DaddysGirl, may have teared up a little. I might have too. We all snapped pictures of BabyRalph.Ralph held BabyRalph and held him some more, until it was time for a diaper change. It was a magical moment.

But it was only a moment. Ralph did not show interest in holding the baby again over the next two days before I drove him back to the farm where he greeted the dogs with great joy and relief.

Part One of the Plan was a success.

Part Two…. I’ll let you know soon enough.

How Politics Is Hitting Home, Or In Ralph’s Case How It Isn’t

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Living through this political season has been a more emotional experience than in past election years for three reasons.

 

One

Obviously the candidates have raised strong reactions. Like so many others, I have VERY STRONG opinion. I don’t want to be coy here—I dislike Trump to put it mildly while my enthusiasm for Hilary has been growing as the campaign evolves. But living where I do, in a smallish, very conservative southern town, voicing opinions can be risky. I have plenty of friends who I am sure have different political opinions. Usually our differences have been the basis for lively discussions. But this year we are all careful around each other, too careful. Friendships may be at risk in this climate.

 

 

Two

Hearing the rhetoric from all sides has set me thinking about my experience of family as a microcosm of the larger community experience, and specifically about how my family represents of today’s America.

My grandchildren through Ralph’s son by his first marriage visited this summer. It was a big deal because they live with their mother in Namibia (in southwestern Africa) so don’t get here often. And when they come they split their time among a lot of people—us, Ralph’s first wife and family, plus relatives of our ex-daughter-in-law. There are grandparents, aunts, uncles, cousins in a never-ending stream. Often the question of who gets to visit for how long causes tensions. But this year we worked the schedule out, and our extended families came together for various cookouts and bbqs.

Today I glanced at the photograph from one of those gatherings—I have blacked out the faces to protect the innocent and guilty—and saw a world: Caucasian, African-American, American Indian, Goan Indian, Protestant, Catholic, Jewish, Atheist, Straight, Gay, Old, Young, Middle Aged, Careers in Business, Education, the Arts and Health Care, Long Married, Single, and formerly married (Ralph and his first wife). My proud, rather self-righteous thought was what a poster family we are for the United States but then I realized we are probably a fairly run-of-the-mill mash up in today’s America.

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Three

For the first time since he was a fourteen year old and his best friend’s mother involved him in her political activism, Ralph is watching the election from the sidelines. Even as recently as four years ago, when he’d already started to show symptoms of cognitive impairment, he actively and somewhat vociferously followed politics. I have previously written that Ralph’s political views have softened—from a hard-line socialist to a hard-line libertarian back to somewhere in the moderate middle—but this election has thrown his changing concern for the world at large into stark relief.

As he says with a chuckle whenever politics comes up, “I’m not really following.” And he’s not. He has decided he likes Hillary and doesn’t like Donald, but also has trouble remembering they are running against each other. As for the issues, he nods when I pontificate or voice outrage but then, like a kid caught stealing a cookie, he admits he’s not really been paying attention. The problem is that there are too many details to hold on to. Analysis requires remembering layers of thought. So does nuance. Ralph is great at remembering certain stories of his own and even lots of facts, but when he listens to sentences that should add up to someone else’s story, or argument, he gets lost. Therefore he steers away from stories and arguments.

But this may be my limited explanation of his disinterest. He would disagree. “Been there, done that,” he’d laugh before explaining that he’s simply over politics, the same way he’s over fishing and boating and business, because he’s been deeply involved in each and now he’s moved on. I am careful not to ask moved on to what?

The Thorn Among The Roses

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Our fourth annual “Camp Mountain Creek” gathering of the cousins ended this morning. For the last eight days Ralph put up with three female adults (me, our niece and her friend) and four teen and preteen girls (our niece’s daughters and our granddaughter). Enough to wear out any man.

I have watched with fascination the evolution of the relationships among the girls as they mature. There used to be spats and hurt feelings that had to be soothed. This year they simply enjoyed one another. While there were shifting match ups there was no ganging up. The kids have created traditions they cling to (killer charades, skinny dipping, endless junk food) and have amassed stories they can tell and retell (scary moments, funny moments, angry moments, and serious moments like discussing racism and violence in America in light of the recent shootings). There were lots of tears when the cousins said goodbye.

I have also watched how their interactions with Ralph have changed. Four years ago he was at the center of things: taking them fishing, scaring them with ghost stories, driving them to Dairy Queen, and disciplining them on occasion.

Three years ago, they thought it was hilarious when he got a little lost on the way to McDonalds. Two years ago, they begged him to play Scattergories but he wouldn’t. Last year they couldn’t get him to tell his ghost stories.

This year we managed to get him to come with us for one meal out. He didn’t swim, despite temperatures in the nineties. He didn’t play games. He didn’t tell stories.

Mostly he enjoyed the girls’ presence at a remove. While he was not disturbed by the altered routine, the messy house, the noise, he did not go out of his way to be part of the activities. He kept up his daily routine—sleeping late, sitting on the porch, disappearing for an hour or two into his “office”, taking his afternoon nap followed by more time on the porch, dinner, and bed.

Sometimes he rallied. After enough teasing, he changed from jeans into shorts and sat with everyone by the pool one afternoon. Last night eating pizza at our last dinner together, he was as funny and engaged as ever.

The girls still adore him but they are old enough now to understand and want to discuss. I had to explain his diagnosis and what Alzheimer’s entails. The younger ones asked the older ones what he used to be like. The older ones talked about being “sad” over the changes they have noticed. They are all incredibly patient with him.

At first I was upset that they were so aware of Ralph’s diminishing self. But a friend pointed out that they were experiencing the life cycle first hand. She’s right. These girls will never forget their carefree weeks together on the farm, and sharing not only the joyful but also the bittersweet will make those memories all the more powerful. I wish I could be around to hear them reminisce about their “Uncle Ralph” and “Oppa” when they get together thirty years from now, as I have no doubt they will.

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